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Coronavirus: 1.2 million people have made universal credit claims since UK lockdown began

Sevenfold increase in claims over last three weeks compared to before outbreak of Covid-19

Chris Baynes
Thursday 09 April 2020 17:26 BST
1.2 million people have made universal credit claims Therese Coffey says

About 1.2 million people have made claims for universal credit in the past three weeks after the coronavirus pandemic brought swathes of the UK economy to a standstill.

The number of people applying for the benefit has increased sevenfold since 16 March as employees who have lost jobs due to the lockdown seek financial help.

Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said the number of new claims fell to slightly less than 40,000 on Tuesday. But she told ITV’s Peston: “Given our average daily is between 10,000 to 12,000 that’s still a significant number.”

Ms Coffey added it was not just people who had lost their jobs that were making claims, but also self-employed workers whose incomes had “fallen significantly”.

The government received about 55,000 claims for universal credit “in a normal week” before the crisis, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) permanent secretary Peter Schofield.

Calls to the DWP’s universal credit helpline soared to 2.2 million on 30 March and totalled 5.8 million over a seven-day period, he told MPs on the work and pensions select committee.

The committee has launched an inquiry into the DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak following the increased strain on the system.

It wants to understand how well universal credit is working given the “unprecedented” number of new claimants, whether there have been improvements in the delays faced by claimants in the second half of March, and how quickly people are receiving an advance on their first payment.

Mr Schofield, replying to questions posed before the launch of the inquiry, said 41,000 new claimants were paid an advance in the week beginning 16 March and 72,000 in the following week.

He said he was unable to provide details on claims submitted more recently as they are being processed.

Asked about the average wait before a universal credit claimant received an advance, Mr Schofield offered no figures and said only that the department was “committed to delivering advances as soon as possible”.

He admitted claimants were experiencing delays in the system but said capacity had been quadrupled and the current average waiting time for registration via the government website was “now less than five minutes”.

Pressed on whether new claimants would have to wait longer than the expected five weeks after the start of their claim to receive their first payment, Mr Schofield reiterated 10,000 staff had been redeployed to help and recruitment is ongoing.

He added: “Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, we had been consistently achieving around 85 per cent payment timeliness in the first assessment period – a high standard.

“Recent new claim volumes have been more than 10 times higher than normal – the whole department is focusing on ensuring that the highest possible standards are achieved.”

Labour MP and committee chairman Stephen Timms said the DWP’s frontline staff were “making a herculean effort to deal with the unprecedented numbers of new claims” for universal credit and thanked them for their efforts.

But he added: “It is disappointing that the permanent secretary can’t tell us what proportion of people who’ve asked for an advance payment have had one, or tell us anything about the delays that people are facing on DWP’s phone lines.

“So we can better understand the issues faced by people who rely on the benefits system, we’d like to hear from people about their experiences getting the support they need.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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